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Fiction

Damned souls and statistics (Part I)

From the LabLit short story series

Robert Dawson 20 August 2011

www.lablit.com/article/681

He said nothing, but I felt as if, somewhere inside my head, a trap had been sprung. My mind flooded with shame-filled memories of my thesis defense.

Editor's note: We are pleased to present Part 1 of a two-part story by Canadian mathematician Robert Dawson.

But Pascal expected a reward of infinite value. Do you?”

His eyes, which looked as though they had been drawn in their sockets with charcoal, fixed me. His face was bleak and gray, his voice was flat and emotionless, and his dark suit looked as if it had been washed slightly too hot. No cloven hooves or scent of brimstone but, very deep inside, I already suspected who he was.

I stared at my drink, then tried to look away, to find a familiar face in the Faculty Pub. But somehow, that Friday, in a crowded room full of colleagues, I could find nobody to rescue me from this interrogation. Backs were turned, faces invisible behind the dark square wooden pillars that broke up the room. I recognized a few faces, but could not put names to them. I realized how rarely I had come here, in my five years of teaching at Greenwald. My eyes were drawn back to his.

“No, I don’t.”

Through a gap between the long curtains I could see the warm tangerine light of the October sunset. It should have been a simple matter to excuse myself and walk out of the building. But the reason for walking out was one my modern mind would not put into words; so I stood there, at one end of the bar, my back to the wall, like a deer in a car’s headlights.

“You say that you’re a statistician.” The voice stayed flat. “You teach probability theory.”

Somehow I was on the defensive again. I tried to stick to the facts. “Yes, I have a PhD in statistics.”

He said nothing, but I felt as if, somewhere inside my head, a trap had been sprung. My mind flooded with shame-filled memories of my thesis defense. Partway through, somebody had asked me to explain the derivation of a formula. I started to explain: the transformation, the differentiation under the integral sign. With my mouth dry, I mentioned the convergence criteria that made it work, a detail I’d omitted in the thesis. Then the creeping terror began. Those convergence criteria were met there all right; but I’d used the same technique in another derivation, late in the second chapter. I was sure I had not checked convergence there either. With a dreadful cold certainty, I realized that I could not guarantee more than local conditional convergence for that class of distributions.

The proof did not work. In a moment one of the examiners would bring it up. For half an hour I died there. Finally the ordeal ended. They hadn't found me out.

It was six months before I dared to look at my thesis. By then I had taken my degree (in absentia, to my parents’ distress), and had been promised a job. On review, I realized that the error was minor, and could be repaired with another page of work. But my joy in my new doctorate had never been whole and never would be.

It was almost a relief when he spoke again. “And you believe in what you teach?”

I started to answer, and again my mind filled with things I didn’t want to think of. Would I really analyze a data set using the methods I taught my first-year class? Wasn’t much of what I taught them based on implausible oversimplifications? For a moment, through my misery, I wondered where these ideas were coming from, but his voice broke in.

“We were talking about Pascal’s wager. If the probability of an infinite reward or punishment is zero, and if you believe in probability theory, then logically you should be prepared to make a bet the other way in return for a finite reward.”

I tried to think what this meant, but I could not. The wall was hard against my back.

"I will guarantee that you get tenure this January. In return, I would like you to do a small piece of work for me. Purely in your professional capacity, of course."

He reached into his inside breast pocket and produced a small parchment. It was a contract, handwritten in a dirty-brown ink. In return for assistance in preparing a successful application for tenure, I, Allison Merton, promised, on or before the end of April of next year, to provide up to three hours of statistical consultation on a topic to be specified. Should I fail in this, my soul was forfeit. In witness to which my hand, etc. It did not specify the name of the other party.

He had two other items in his hand. One was a small metal blade, shaped like a narrow arrowhead, a couple of inches long. The surface was a dark, uneven brown, with a spot in the middle polished smooth and black by fingertips. Only the point showed bright metal. Characters in an alphabet I did not know were graven deep into its pitted surface. The other object was an old-fashioned dip pen.

**********

As I walked home, slightly drunk, with my finger throbbing, I knew I had been an idiot. I hoped nobody had seen what we were doing. He hadn’t even had the date right; the hearing was in February. I didn’t need help with my tenure application anyway. OK, so sometimes I lay awake at two in the morning worrying that my work wasn’t good enough. Still, I didn’t need help. Was the lancet clean? I could go to Campus Health for a tetanus shot and wouldn’t need to tell the doctor what had happened, right? And if the Head – or, oh hell, the tenure committee! – ever saw that horrid piece of parchment, I was going to have some serious explaining to do.

I decided that if it ever happened I would lie like a trooper and disclaim all knowledge. Nobody was going to call in a handwriting expert to see if Dr Allison Merton, untenured assistant professor of statistics, had really signed a pact with the Devil, would they? I walked on, feeling slightly better.

**********

It would appear that the Head never saw the parchment. I was faintly apprehensive when he summoned me to his office in mid-December. But all he wanted to discuss was my tenure. Were my publications up to date? (Yes.) Had my December evaluation been good? (Not fantastic, but above average.) Then the bombshell.

“That’s really good, Allison. The Dean has been asked to serve on a national education committee in February. As a result, he has asked me if we can move your tenure hearing up to late January.”

Suddenly my palms were sweaty, and my pulse pounded. I tried to think of something to say but nothing coherent came out.

“Don’t worry, Allison. Firstly, as you’ve said, your publications and evaluations are good. But,” – he dropped his voice just a little – “there’s something else to consider. He’s asked you to move the hearing up; you’re doing him a favor. This way – off the record – I think you’re pretty much safe. Lock it in.”

My mouth was dry. “Dr… I mean Martin – I’d … I’d rather not…”

“Allison, trust me. This really is in your favor. Also, I’ve already told him `yes’, so don’t make me go back to him, all right?” He smiled ingratiatingly.

Feeling that I was making a terrible mistake, I agreed.

“All right then, Allison. That’s good. Just get your paperwork and the copies of your papers in by… let’s say the end of next week.”

“Okay. Thank you.” I stood up, and left.

**********

The hearing, when it came, was brief and uneventful. Nobody sounded especially enthusiastic about my work or teaching; but everybody agreed that I had met the required standards. They all seemed nervous. The Dean in particular sounded as if he was reading an unfamiliar part from a script. After fifteen minutes or so they asked me to leave the room.

Almost immediately the Dean opened the door again, and stepped out. He reached clumsily for my hand, shook it, and told me that I had tenure, effective immediately. His hand felt oddly shaky. Then he turned and went back into the meeting room; the door closed behind him.

I walked slowly down the hall, depressed. I mean, nobody expects fireworks and champagne at a tenure hearing, but I had expected somebody to seem pleased that I was going to be around for the next thirty-five years. Wasn’t this meant to be a big, special moment in my life? It certainly didn’t feel like one. It felt perfunctory, “like getting laid without getting kissed” as one of my roommates used to say. It felt like my first year in residence when I was too shy to tell anybody that it was my birthday, and my family didn’t phone. It felt miserable.

I wondered whether to go over to the Faculty Club and find somebody to celebrate with. I decided against it; I had the better part of a quart carton of ice cream at home in the fridge. That seemed more appropriate.

**********

When I got home, I let myself into my apartment and switched on the hall light. Something smelled bad. A dead mouse? That could wait till after my shower. I hung my “interview” jacket over a chair, and went along the short hall to my bedroom, unbuttoning my blouse as I went, to get some warm pajamas, comfort clothes to eat my comfort ice cream in. As I approached the open door, the smell grew stronger. I turned the bedroom light on, and I shrieked.

The room was covered with black feathers and bloody bits. It looked as if a large bird – there was the head, it had been a crow – had exploded in midair right over my bed. For a moment my empty stomach lurched. With shaking fingers, I started to rebutton my blouse. Then I realized I’d have to change out of it before cleaning the room, and stopped. I thought of phoning the police, but realized that I hadn’t got a clue what I could possibly tell the emergency operator. For a moment I dithered. Finally I compromised by holding the front closed with one hand, grabbing a pair of faded jeans and an old T-shirt out of the laundry basket, and backing out of the room. Once in the bathroom I locked the door, stripped off my work clothes, and put on the scruffies. The cleanup job was going to be really nasty.

An hour later it was finished. I went back to the bathroom, started the shower, and washed myself all over two or three times. Finally I got out and put my pajamas on. In my bare feet, with a towel around my hair, I padded to the living room. I turned on the television, took the ice cream out of the freezer, got myself a spoon, and started to eat right out of the tub, starting to feel less frightened and more sorry for myself. When the ice cream was all finished, and the spoon licked clean, I switched the TV to the children’s channel, where there would be no scary movies, even late at night, and turned it down very low. Then I turned all but one light off, lay down on the couch, put a cushion under my head, and finally fell asleep with a friendly purple dinosaur to watch over me.

**********

When I woke it was still dark outside. I felt bloated and my head ached. I looked for the alarm clock, then realized were I was. I got up; the kitchen clock said it was only five in the morning, but I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep.

I started the coffee maker, then gritted my teeth and walked to the bedroom. The light was still on. Everything looked normal, apart from the two heavy garbage bags and the bare bed. I picked the bags up and carried them to the door. Then I stood for a few minutes trying sleepily to decide whether to take a shower. In the end I did; I felt slightly silly, but it woke me up, and it filled the time.

I dressed, and went down for the paper, taking the bags down to the dumpster. I read it twice while I drank three cups of coffee. Around seven in the morning I put on my blue down parka, a tuque, and my winter boots, and left for work.

As I walked away from my apartment, the sun was still below the horizon, but dawn was spreading above the rooftops and bare branches ahead of me. A few ragged cirrus clouds were pale in the dim sky, and a quarter moon was fading above. The cold air felt clean and good against my cheeks. By the time I reached the university the sky was pale blue, and the first rays of sunlight was making the clouds shine brightly.

My office hours that morning were slow. I started work on a research paper I had been asked to revise for publication. I got absorbed, and lost track of time. Late in the day there was a slow triple knock on my office door. Absentmindedly I called “Come in!”

He was there, dressed as he had been last fall, but carrying a briefcase of old leather, the color of long-dried blood, with corroded iron clasps. He stepped in, closed the door behind him, and sat down in one of my two visitors’ chairs, the one on the far side of the desk. He put the briefcase down on the desktop beside him.

His eyes were upon me. After a short eternity he spoke, in the same flat, dead voice as before. “I have fulfilled my side of the contract.”

**********

The “little consultancy work” turned out to be on behalf of “one of my major clients”.

“Whose identity you prefer to keep secret?”

“No – on the contrary. I insist that you know who you will be helping.” He named a name that I had heard on the television news that morning. I shuddered.

“What I have here are the numbers in various cells of a resistance movement. Not given voluntarily, of course; your research ethics board might take issue with the interview methods. But what my client wants is an estimate for the total number in the organization, and some idea of how good that estimate is. The standard thing, a 95% confidence interval.

“My client is not a very well educated man. He doesn’t know what a confidence interval is. But if I tell him that there are, say, between a thousand and eleven hundred people in the resistance movement, I can assure you that he and his police force will know what to do with the information.” His smile was measured on a micrometer and as cold as outer space.

He reached into his briefcase and produced a tattered sheet of paper, with brown stains near one corner. I glanced at the figures scrawled in pencil, by a brutal, semiliterate hand, and quickly counted them, twenty. Yes, they probably were what they were claimed to be. I didn't want to think about how they had been obtained. Unwillingly I reached for them.

He pulled the sheet back. “You may not take it. You will get the data when you need them."

Suddenly, irrationally, I burst out. “I can't! My soul would be in danger if I were to do a thing like that! I'm...” The words sounded strange in my ears, but no stranger than the situation.

"Damned if you do, and damned if you don't?" The words might have sounded sympathetic. They did not.

“Surely you don’t need me to do a simple task like this?”

“Well, in point of fact I don’t. But there are advantages in developing working relationships in the academic sector, don’t you think?” For a moment he was all Harvard Business School. “So, you will take this on. I will be back with the data at nine PM on the last day of April.”

To be continued...